The Torah Text
Parshat Terumah describes instructions for constructing the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Among the items intended for ritual use are the menorah, a seven-branched golden lampstand.
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
ובדרש כי נעשית מאליה. והטעם שכל רואיה היו תמהים איך יכול אדם לעשותה. כי הנה כתוב … כן עשה את המנורה
Exodus 25:31 AND YOU SHALL MAKE A MENORAH, A MENORAH OF HAMMERED WORK SHALL BE MADE. The Midrash tells us that the menorah made itself. The meaning of this midrash is that all who saw the menorah marveled and asked, “How could a human being make it?” Look! Scripture states…“so he made the candlestick”(Numbers 8:4). (Translation Strickman and Silver)
Reflections for the Path
The midrash that Ibn Ezra refers to shows up in two places in Tanchuma (Shmini 8 and Behaa’lotcha 3). The word for hammered (mikshah) can also be read as “difficult” (kasheh). And “shall be made” leaves open the possibility that no particular person made it. The midrash dramatizes the moment – Moses cannot for the life of him figure out how to make the menorah. This explains the difficulty in making the menorah. An increasingly impatient God finally says, “Just cast the gold in the fire and the menorah will be made all on its own.”
Ibn Ezra emphasizes that this midrash has no actual basis in the text. Elsewhere it is quite clear that Betzalel makes the menorah. Nevertheless, our teacher suggests a meaningful lesson we can take from the midrash. Its craftsmanship evokes awe, a hyperbolic “this must be more than human work!”
This idea in turn reminds me of a story told by Chuang Tzu, an ancient Chinese Taoist (as translated by Thomas Merton).
“Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lai said to the master carver
“What is your secret?”
Khing replied, “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
on trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell-stand.
“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.
My own collected thoughts
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood:
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”